Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Should interns be paid?

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Greg Peck
Monday, September 23, 2013

When I was in high school, I worked part time for a home builder in a work-study program. I got paid for my labor, and I earned high school credit, as well. When I went to UW-Oshkosh, I worked for the student newspaper in a position paid with university funds, as well. As a senior, I worked part time for the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern and earned a paycheck, but I didn't really consider it an internship and didn't earn college credit for my work.

In the last year or so, a friend's daughter, a college graduate, was driving to Madison to work as an unpaid intern. She was glad to do so, apparently, because it gave her experience in her field of study.

All of this made the story in today's Gazette by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism rather intriguing. It said many companies these days are hiring interns without pay. That's allowed by federal law under certain conditions, but a couple of court cases raise questions about whether the employers have crossed the line.

The story explains that Fair Labor Standards Act guidelines say an unpaid internship is permissible if, among other things, it provides an educational environment that benefits the intern rather than the employer and the intern's work doesn't displace the work of paid employees.

Two unpaid interns working for Fox Searchlight Pictures in the movie “Black Swan” have sued. They argue their employer benefited more than they did. A New York federal court sided with the interns in June, but Fox Searchlight is appealing to a federal circuit court.

That case is being watched by Robert C. Weich III, who believes his internship with 540 ESPN Milwaukee violated the law, as well.

“The company takes advantage of free help,” he told reporter Matt Barnidge. “They have 15 to 20 interns at any one time. ESPN has them doing some things that normal employees would do.”

Weich, a UW-Milwaukee student, says he didn't get college credit for his internship, but ESPN disputes that. The university cited academic privacy in declining to comment.

The Gazette, by the way, typically has an intern or two working in its newsroom during summers but pays them modest wages.

This controversy over unpaid interns, coincidentally, comes at the same time college football players are protesting NCAA rules. Some players wore the letters APU—which stands for All Players United—on their gear Saturday in a push for better health care, more scholarship money and to lift NCAA restrictions on legitimate employment and players' ability to directly benefit from commercial opportunities.

What do you think? Are too many employers taking unfair advantage of unpaid interns? What about the NCAA?

Greg Peck can be reached at 608-755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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